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The Truth About The Truth

The difference between data, information, and the truth has never been so important.

"A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on." — James G. Watt

The difference between data, information, and the truth has never been so important, and, although these differences are easy to define, they're impressively hard to put into action. It's a problem that permeates our data-rich and information-poor society as never before, hooked as we are on real-time, 24X7 operations that span a global economy. Look at the Bush administrations' problems with intelligence and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Former CIA head George Tenet — effectively the CIO of the administration's intelligence line of business — fell on his sword by resigning just weeks before a Senate committee report surfaced that blamed Tenet's information processes for feeding the President misinformation about WMDs. Our country's involvement in the war in Iraq isn't an issue for this column, but suffice to say that an entire planet-full of actions have taken place based on information and analysis that have proven to be a lot less than accurate.

All this shows that a little kernel of truth is worth a whole lot more than reams and reams of information, however well reasoned or well intentioned they may be. So while there's no doubt that we have more and more information at our fingertips, does all that information mean we know more about the truth? Unfortunately, the answer — the truth about the truth — is as stubbornly elusive as ever. Meanwhile, the risk of using the wrong "truth" increases with every technological advance.

The False Truths

One reason the metatruth is so elusive is that it's rooted in a basic philosophical problem: The more you process information, the further you get from the truth. Knowing the truth about things that take place in front of your very eyes — where you're the real-time analyst, observer, and recorder — is relatively easy. If you're colorblind, for example, you might think an object is gray and not green. You may not rival Sherlock Holmes in your powers of observation, but all things being equal, what you can see with your own two eyes is generally truth enough for most of us.

But the moment an analyst relies on information that's dated or has been processed in some way, the truth becomes highly interpretive. Do you have complete information? Is it from a reliable source? Is the data timely? Do you understand how the data and metadata are stored and are intended to be interpreted? Are the correlations and assumptions that you're making about related data valid? Once the analyst is no longer watching and observing events in real time, these questions become harder to answer with confidence. Without an unequivocal yes to each question, the absolute truth can only be guessed with some hopefully reasonable degree of accuracy. And when it comes to the complex interactions that take place in business or government, there's no possibility that the important issues can ever be known by simple observation. Hard issues often require analyzing things that happened a long time ago in distant lands. Which means that the truth becomes a hoped-for conclusion, not a given. Strike one against the truth.

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